Walsh defends actions by O’Brien

Says ex-probation boss is ‘a good man’

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. Dina Rudick/Globe Staff
Dina Rudick/Globe Staff
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh

In his first public comments since last week’s damning verdict in the probation corruption trial, Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Tuesday that the actions of former probation chief John J. O’Brien did not rise to the level of a crime.

A federal jury declared O’Brien guilty in a sweeping verdict that found he ran the Probation Department like a criminal enterprise, handing out jobs to the politically powerful for personal benefit. The jury also convicted O’Brien’s top aide, Elizabeth Tavares, of aiding and abetting the scheme, and a deputy, William Burke III, of participating in a racketeering conspiracy.

Walsh’s defense of O’Brien came near the end of an hourlong appearance on WGBH-FM , in which the mayor expressed sentiments held by many Senate and House lawmakers who defend job placements as one of their basic duties as legislators.


“Boston Public Radio” co-host Jim Braude, noting Walsh’s time in the Legislature, asked the mayor whether he felt O’Brien was guilty of a crime.

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“I don’t think so,’’ Walsh said, adding that when he was in the Legislature he was expected to write letters of recommendations and help people with employment.

“I think what happened here in this particular case is sad for the Legislature trying to get out from a couple of dark clouds’’ looming over it over the past decade, Walsh said.

“Jack O’Brien was the head of probation. . . . I thought it was a sad day for Massachusetts. It was a sad day for the Legislature. It was a sad day for the judiciary.”

The program’s other host, Margery Eagan, pressed Walsh to clarify his position on O’Brien: “What you are saying is you don’t think that rigging the system, which he was found guilty of, rose to the level of being criminal?’’ Egan questioned.


“Well, yeah,’’ responded Walsh, who quickly added that he did not have all the facts in the case nor had he read the testimony.

Walsh persisted in making O’Brien seem more like a victim than a perpetrator.

“I think he went to work every day to do his job,’’ Walsh said. “I think somehow the system got the better of him.”

Officials from US Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s office stood by the prosecution of the case when reached Tuesday.

“The jury answered the question of Mr. O’Brien’s guilt after hearing all of the evidence in the case,’’ Ortiz spokeswoman Christina DiIorio-Sterling said.


Walsh could not be reached late Tuesday to clarify his remarks.

‘I thought it was a sad day for Massachusetts. It was a sad day for the Legislature. It was a sad day for the judiciary.’

His spokeswoman, Kate Norton, issued a statement in which the mayor seemed to hold firm on the views he expressed on the radio.

“I was not a member of this jury, and I do respect their judgment and decision,’’ Walsh said in the statement. “However, I feel as though elected officials have an obligation to be helpful to their constituents, including — when appropriate — assistance with employment opportunities, writing letters of recommendation for schools, and so on.”

Walsh also went on to further defend O’Brien.

“I know Jack O’Brien to be a good man, and the circumstances surrounding this case and the results are distressing,’’ the mayor said.

US prosecutors based their corruption case in large part on a 2010 Boston Globe Spotlight series that exposed widespread patronage hiring in the Probation Department, which oversees defendants facing charges in criminal court and mediates disputes in family courts.

O’Brien and his deputies were convicted for doling out jobs to the friends of legislators, while passing over more qualified candidates.

In return, prosecutors alleged, legislators routinely boosted the Probation Department’s budget.

Legislators also allegedly passed measures that helped preserve O’Brien’s control over hiring.

During the trial, witnesses told jurors that O’Brien gave particular weight to recommendations from powerful legislators, including House Speaker Robert DeLeo, who has vehemently denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged.

Defense attorneys brought up Walsh’s name during the trial to point out that he and other high-ranking legislators had regularly sponsored candidates, as a way of suggesting that O’Brien’s actions constituted politics as usual on Beacon Hill.

Recommending candidates for jobs is not illegal, but federal prosecutors allege that O’Brien and others took the practice to a criminal level.

During Tuesday’s radio show, Walsh was asked about federal prosecutors’ handling of the case, especially pertaining to DeLeo, who was called an unindicted co-conspirator in the middle of the case.

The mayor avoided answering directly, saying the US attorney’s office does “some good work on some things.” But on this case, Walsh said, state legislators were easy targets.

Michael Levenson and Milton J. Valencia of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Meghan E. Irons can be reached at